The BCS No. 12 Nebraska Cornhuskers are looking to punch their ticket to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl, and they have a huge advantage in the win-loss column over the Wisconsin Badgers entering Saturday night's Big 10 Championship game.
But it is important to note just how close Bret Bielema's bunch has been to being a great team rather than the mediocre vibes their 7-5 record gives off.
If the apocalypse isn't coming in 2012, it sure must seem like it for Badger football fans in terms of the team's on-field performance. Three overtime losses and two three-point heartbreakers on the road—including one in Lincoln—have defined Wisconsin's season.
Other than falling victim to UCLA redshirt freshman QB Brett Hundley's coming out party and enduring a blowout loss at undefeated Ohio State, the Huskers have managed to pull out close games.
The last time these two teams met, junior QB Taylor Martinez devastated the Badgers by reeling off 20 unanswered second-half points to beat Wisconsin 30-27.
You can bet the Badgers will be seeking the sweet honey taste of revenge, which will make this an extremely physical confrontation that should hark back to the old Big 10 days of "three yards and a cloud of dust."
Here are the keys for Nebraska to avoid a slip-up ahead of the marquee showdown in with the upset-minded Badgers in Lucas Oil Stadium.
It is critical that the Huskers hold the ball for the majority of the game. Without a home crowd to rally behind this time around, it will be difficult to overcome as sluggish of a start as they did in the first matchup with Wisconsin.
That means establishing the run early with sophomore Ameer Abdullah, who has run for over 1000 yards on the year and eight touchdowns. Senior RB Rex Burkhead has gutted through injuries throughout the year and hasn't been able to stay in the lineup consistently.
Although Abdullah wasn't exactly the featured back the last time the Huskers met the Badgers, he had a stellar game: 10 carries for 70 yards and three receptions for 22 yards.
Burkhead is a more physical runner, but that has unfortunately put him on the sidelines. Abdullah is more of the complete package and will look to once again give Wisconsin fits.
A steady diet of screen passes and all the combinations of runs Abdullah can do will give Martinez some confidence early by completing some easy throws—and also open lanes for his own dynamic feet to exploit.
Fly after Phillips
The situation under center for the Badgers hasn't been as dire as expected since the season-ending injury to Joel Stave. Senior quarterback Curt Phillips has stepped in, and after a blowout victory over Indiana to begin, he has performed decently against two tough opponents.
In overtime losses to Ohio State and at Penn State, Phillips went a combined 26-of-50 for 345 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Not great by any means, but not horrific—especially with All-American running back Montee Ball to hand off to.
However, the story may be different against the Huskers, who boast the top-rated pass defense in the nation (h/t NCAA.com), giving up just 152.2 yards per game through the air.
Nebraska has seen this improvement despite the loss of players like Lavonte David, Alfonzo Dennard and Jared Crick to the NFL. Linebacker Will Compton credits the work ethic and study of the opposition for the unit improving despite the departure of such talented players (h/t The Independent):
I think we’re a smarter defense...We’ve been in the system longer. We’ve got more veteran guys. The work we put in during the off-season, the leadership. There’s a bunch of good things. We had a bunch of good stuff last year, but we just, for some reason, didn’t get it put together, especially for four quarters every game.
With such a stout secondary, the Huskers can focus on stuffing Ball, which produced mixed results in the first meeting. Even though the Wisconsin back averaged under three yards per carry, he still managed to find the end zone three times.
That has to change, and without Stave taking the snaps, it should free up the play-calling flexibility for stunts and blitzes for Huskers defensive coordinator John Papuchi.
Another monster finish from Martinez
As was touched on earlier, the Nebraska signal-caller absolutely destroyed the Badger defense in the second half. The Huskers dominated time of possession and racked up four consecutive scoring drives between the third and fourth quarters.
In the event that the defense isn't able to stop Ball, and Phillips can connect with WR Jared Abbrederis for some big plays—as Stave did seven times for 142 yards and a touchdown back in September—Martinez may be asked to rise to the occasion again.
The Achilles' heel in the Badger defense is their performance in the red zone, where they rank third-worst in the country.
As long as Martinez can get it done between the 20s, the Cornhuskers should have no problem lighting up the scoreboard.
That may not be as easy as it was the first time, when Martinez threw for 181 yards and two TDs and also scampered for 100-plus and a score. Wisconsin managed to shut down Ohio State's own sensational athletic QB Braxton Miller, holding him to under 100 yards passing and just over two yards per carry.
Something will have to give.
Even though the Huskers have the obvious advantage at the game's most important position, Martinez will have to prove the mismatch is as drastic as the teams' differences in records for Nebraska to win comfortably on neutral turf.